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Guide Health: The bother of warts

Most warts may be harmless, but it’s still important to know what to do and expect

Yes, warts are usually considered harmless, but they certainly can be a bother. Warts are caused by a group of viruses known as the human papillomaviruses. About 12 per cent of the population is affected at any one time, with children and young adults experiencing warts more often.

The spread is via direct skin-to-skin contact, with the wart developing at the site of a skin break. Because children and young adults usually have more direct skin contact with each other, this may be the reason for the greater prevalence of warts in these age groups.

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The common wart, as its name suggests, is the one you see most often. It affects knees, fingers, hands, and the skin around the nails. These are small, hard, raised growths with a rough surface with a shape like a cauliflower.

Genital warts are caused by the same viruses but, just as their name suggests, they affect the genitalia. They are considered a sexually transmitted infection, again because their spread requires the skin-to-skin contact which in this case occurs during sex. The numbers of people affected are difficult to estimate because many individuals do not seek medical attention.

The time between contact with the virus and the outbreak of the skin lesion can be anywhere from two to nine months. Spontaneous remission occurs in about two-thirds of the cases, and in school age children with common warts, remission takes about a year.

Thus the first step in wart treatment is to wait and see if the wart clears up on its own. As well, there are many self-treatments which can be successful.

You should avoid scratching, biting, or cutting the wart. Yes, you want it gone, but by damaging the wart you can increase pain, discomfort and bleeding as well as your risk of spreading the virus. If warts are numerous, very large, or located in inconvenient locations, you should seek medical treatment.

One treatment approach for common warts is the use of duct tape to reduce viral survival. The idea is to apply the duct tape on the wart for six days, then remove it on the seventh, soaking the wart or brushing with pumice. Then repeat the routine. The thought is that the duct tape blocks the fresh air that the virus needs.

Non-prescription common-wart remedies use keratolytic agents like salicylic acid to cause the slow destruction of the virus-infected skin. A good idea is to use an adhesive bandage to cover the skin near the wart. Then, when you apply the wart remover you are less likely to apply it to the healthy skin surrounding the common wart. But remember, these keratolytic wart removers should still not be used on tender skin areas like the face.

For genital warts, products like imiquimod cream or podophyllin film are the usual treatments, but you do need medical attention. After all, the genital area is very delicate.

If you have circulation problems or diabetes, treating warts on your own is not a good idea because your healing is delayed and you may not feel pain as you should. Thus, you are at increased risk for skin damage, secondary infections, and even ulcers.

Retreatment is often required for warts, and if treatments fail “freezing” warts with liquid nitrogen or surgical removal may be recommended. However, even these options may need to be repeated. Patience is certainly the key to treating warts!

About the author

Contributor

Marie Berry is a lawyer/pharmacist interested in health and education.

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